US depression epidemic reflects cultural emptiness


Charles McKay, Staff Columnist

Americans are depressed – more depressed than ever before.  WebMD reports that over the last 4 years the number of people struggling with major depression has risen 33%.  The trend is more alarming in young people, where reports of depression are up 63% among teens and 47% for millennials. Despite the outcry over gun homicides, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that young Americans ages 15-34 are more likely to take their own life with a gun than have it taken by someone else.

What’s more concerning is that there aren’t any obvious reasons for the alarming increase in depression. Americans are enjoying record-setting economic prosperity. We’re living in a time of relative peace, free from the fear of being drafted by the military. Our doctors have eradicated countless diseases that devastated human populations in years past. We’re benefitting from an era of unprecedented technological luxury; cars are literally driving themselves.

Yet, with all of these positive developments, we’ve never been unhappier.

Many people have stressed the need to raise “awareness” on the issue, erase the “stigma” of depression or invest in mental health clinics.  Such measures, while necessary, won’t address the underlying emptiness that’s contributing to the recent depression epidemic. This emptiness in many ways reflects the void in American society caused by the breakdown of American families, decline in religious belief and the superficiality of social media.

The American family, once the backbone of our society, has completely collapsed. Pew Research Center found that roughly 50 years ago, 73% of children in the US were born into an intact two-parent home in which the couple was in their first marriage.

Now, only 46% of children in the United States fit this description, with roughly one quarter of all children today being primarily raised by single mothers.  The breakdown of the family is so widespread that psychologists have labeled millennials the “fatherless generation.”

The benefit of having two supportive and dedicated parents to navigate you through the turbulence of childhood and assist you in developing into a healthy young person cannot be understated. While not always the case, chaotic and troubled childhoods can produce chaotic and troubled people.  Unfortunately, fewer and fewer young Americans have the positive stability that comes from being raised jointly by two married parents.

The crisis is especially apparent in African-American youth. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, three quarters of African-American children are born outside of marriage – roughly double the rate for white families. As the Washington Post reported in May of last year, black children take their lives at double the rate of their white counterparts, three quarters of whom benefit from the stability of having parents who are married. The sad reality is that recurring instability within American homes is harming our young people.

The religious fabric of our nation is also disintegrating.  In 1960, a Gallup survey found that only 2% of Americans did not identify with a religion.  That number has skyrocketed to 20% in the most recent survey. As with the spike in depression, this trend is even more extreme for young people. The Public Religion Research Institute found that an astounding 39% of young adults 18-29 have no religious affiliation, marking a 29% increase from just 1990.

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the direction and purpose religion instills in many people, and unfortunately that source of inspiration is touching far fewer individuals than it once did.

Pile social media on top of these disruptive societal changes, and one begins to understand why so many young Americans are dying deaths of despair. Because of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, high school and college students are constantly inundated with the seemingly perfect lives of friends, family and celebrities.

These platforms only touch on the surface of what’s going on in others’ lives, but the urge to measure one’s life and seek affirmation through these shallow outlets can be powerful and demoralizing.

Medicine can help address genetic predisposition to depression, but pharmaceuticals cannot fix the societal issues underlying young people’s instability and emptiness. As a country, we must encourage the development of stable, two-parent families, which involves recognizing the value of marriage. In addition to this, communities need to assist single parents who are tasked with picking up the pieces of a broken home.

If they want to remain a pillar of the community, churches need to start setting the example of what healthy families should look like and filling the void for children without one. Pastors and spiritual leaders need to loudly counter the shallowness of social media by reminding us that there is meaning outside of one’s immediate circumstances.

Instead of relying on pharmaceuticals to produce a happier society, we can bring one about naturally by supporting families, reviving churches and emphasizing a healthy approach to social media.